A Lesson About Life From Roy Blount

by Bill Brenner on July 8, 2011

I went with Erin to Concord, N.H. last night to hear a talk from writer and humorist Roy Blount Jr. Some of you might recognize the name from the NPR news/comedy quiz show, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! 

Mood music:

Truth be told, Erin is a bigger fan than I am. But I enjoyed his talk. Especially when he offered advice to a guy in the audience who sought advice for his son, an aspiring writer.

Blount’s advice went something like this:

Go see something of the world. Experiences are more important to a writer than a big degree in writing. In fact, he seemed to discourage the man’s son from going to a university in search of what he needs.

Also see: Writing to Save My Life

Instead, he should experience life among the commoners, Blount said. The kid could get a job as a hair dresser and learn more that way, he suggested.

That kind of comment feeds my personal bias, because for years I’ve been telling college kids that the only way to be a good writer is to experience the world.

I didn’t pursue a journalism degree in college. I was an English major, which amuses the hell out of people who have heard me talk. In school, I spent more time in the newsroom of the college paper than in the classroom. I learned how to be a journalist by diving in and being a reporter. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, mind you, but covering campus politics and life in general was a better education than learning about the reverse pyramid style of news writing.

After college I wrote for and edited several weekly papers. Immersing myself in the experiences of those doing the living and dying in places like Stoneham and Lynn was crucial. I covered drug overdoses, drownings, political dog fights. And I slowly realized that the more detail I could cram in about a person’s struggles, the more valuable the writing.

I learned a lot less about people in the four and a half years I spent as night editor at The Eagle-Tribune. That paper has been on the front lines of some huge stories, including the drowning of four kids in the Merrimack River in 2002, the Malden Mills inferno of 1995, and 9-11-01. A number of Merrimack Valley residents were on the doomed planes that morning.

Huge as those things were (though Malden Mills was before my time there), I wasn’t the one out there interviewing people. I waited for stuff to come into the newsroom, and that stunted my growth. It didn’t have to be that way, but I was too self absorbed to do the things that mattered.

When I left there in 2004 and started writing about information security, the world was cracked open in front of me. I started talking to people from around the globe about things that were a pretty big deal compared to what I was used to: Data security breaches, government security activities, etc. I did learn this much from the Eagle-Tribune, though:

It’s not enough to just write about the technology and legalese. There’s always a human experience to be found behind the machinery.

I’ve had my fair share of personal life, death and adversity to build on as well, but the great thing about journalism is that it’s largely a study of other people — people you might not otherwise identify with.

My thanks to Blount for the reminder.

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